HP and SIGMADESIGN Launch Material Development Kit for 3D Printing
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on March 20, 2017 | 1781 views

Key to HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing technology is its open materials platform, wherein materials partners can develop powders specifically for 3D printing with MJF. Not only is this a unique concept for printer manufacturers, but it could also be crucial for the widespread adoption of MJF in the broader manufacturing industry.

While treating ENGINEERING.com to a tour of its Corvallis, Oreg., site, HP used the opportunity to introduce us to what may be the world’s first Material Development Kit (MDK) for 3D printing. Although it is modeled after a software development kit, an MDK isn’t as straightforward as providing source code to a potential material partner.

The MDK for HP's MJF technology, developed by SIGMADESIGN. (Image courtesy of HP.)
The MDK for HP's MJF technology, developed by SIGMADESIGN. (Image courtesy of HP.)

The MDK is actually a piece of hardware built by HP partner SIGMADESIGN for the purposes of testing powders before submitting new materials to HP for certification and sale in the company’s marketplace. At the Corvallis site, we were able to get a look at the MDK as well as future developments associated with the HP open materials platform.

The MDK

Product engineering and design company SIGMADESIGN was among the first customers to receive an HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 3D printer. As such, the company has firsthand experience with MJF technology and its work in product engineering enabled SIGMADESIGN to develop the MDK for MJF.

Bill Huseby, president and CEO of SIGMADESIGN, said of the MDK, “Many companies, both large and small, do not have the internal capabilities to execute their 3D printing vision as quickly or as broadly as they’d like. We are proud to provide world-class foundational tools such as the MDK and in-depth design expertise for organizations ready to innovate using HP Multi Jet Fusion technology right now.”

MDK testing shows a 3D powder with good spread-ability.
MDK testing shows a 3D powder with good spread-ability.

The MDK, which is available for preorder from SIGMADESIGN for $24,150, provides just the first step to validating a material for use with MJF. The system simulates the rolling mechanism featured in MJF 3D printers that makes it possible to test how well a powder spreads across the build platform. The MDK disperses the powder across one of a variety of test coupons that represent the layer thicknesses possible with MJF (five coupons from 0.1 mm to 1.0 mm).

Although the dispersion may be partially determined by the human eye, SIGMADESIGN also developed a $6,725 vision system accessory that quantifies the average optical density and uniformity of the MDK’s powder spread. This provides a much more accurate calculation of how well the material can be spread by an actual HP system.

The MDK Is Just Step 1

Good dispersion means that the material may just be ready for the next step of validation. In HP’s 3D Open Materials and Applications Lab, the company had the subsequent steps laid out. Following a test from the MDK, materials are placed into what is essentially a stripped-down MJF build unit. The powder is fed into the build tray through the system’s powder feeder and is spread across the platform for 20 to 50 cycles.

This process is performed to determine the material’s ability to consistently and uniformly spread through what would be an entire print job. In this stage, questions about the material’s mass flow rate and compaction are answered.

Next, the material is actually used for printing. In another semi-dismantled MJF 3D printer, the powder is used to 3D print test coupons, as a fusing agent is deposited and infrared lamps meld the particles together. Meanwhile, an infrared camera monitors the temperature of the powder during fusion.

An MJF testbed for printing test coupons and other parts to determine material printability within the lab. (Image courtesy of HP.)
An MJF testbed for printing test coupons and other parts to determine material printability within the lab. (Image courtesy of HP.)

At this stage, the optimal parameters, such as the number of passes required by the infrared lamps, can be determined. It’s also at this stage that some of the physical properties of the material, such as flexibility and rigidness, are validated.

The material then moves on to actual MJF 3D printers and processing stations, which can further ensure and refine printability, as well as the recyclability of the powder. HP’s first Nylon 12 material is meant to be 100 percent recyclable, but that might not be the case for other powders.

The material is ready for final characterization and undergoes analysis using such tools as laser point scanners and shear scanners to determine how the powder itself, as well as parts printed with the powder, looks and behaves.

If the powder passes all of these tests, then it is ready for manufacturing.

The Advantages of Open

There are already countless materials available for mainstream manufacturing processes like injection molding. If HP wants to disrupt the $12 trillion manufacturing market, it will need to quickly adapt new materials to the MJF process, thus making it possible to leverage the various applications associated with a given material.

The MDK, then, is just the beginning of material validation for MJF. What it allows customers to do is begin powder development with just a small investment before moving on to produce larger batches of material. With the MDK, it’s possible to test just 10 grams of powder, while each subsequent step requires substantially more, moving from 5 kilograms to 50 kilograms and ending with 500 kilograms on the actual printer itself.

Kara Noack, Head of 3D-Printing North America at BASF, suggested that HP’s approach to materials may in fact speed up material development. “Based on BASF’s experience and R&D capabilities, we have been able to accelerate the development of materials with better mechanical properties by leveraging HP’s 3D Open Materials and Applications Lab,” Noack explained. “We have been able to develop multiple versions of thermoplastic elastomers including TPU, thermoplastic polyurethane, adding to an already comprehensive product portfolio. HP’s 3D Open Materials and Applications Lab is allowing us to provide a wider range of innovative materials to the industry.”

Matthias Kottenhahn, Head of the Business Line High Performance Polymers of Evonik , concurred. “In October, we announced successful certification of VESTOSINT 3D Z2773, and we are now excited to confirm initial availability in May with the full commercial offering available for our customers shortly thereafter,” Kottenhahn  said. “In only six months, leveraging the HP Open Materials and Applications Lab, our team has been able to develop, certify and begin selling an innovative new material with significant property advantages.”

Although materials partners can work hand in hand with HP during the validation process, one might argue that a completely open-source approach to material design and MJF could speed up the process of widespread adoption. Of course, such a model is still controversial among businesses large and small, but companies like Tesla are demonstrating that such an approach is not impossible.

Tim Weber, HP’s global head of 3D Materials and Advanced Applications and general manager of the Corvallis site, explained that HP is beginning with this open model for powder materials, but that things may change in the future. “At the end of the day, we’re a company that is responsible to its shareholders, so everything we do has to make business sense,” Weber said in reference to the possibility of open IP. “If it makes business sense to do so, then we’ll explore it.”

Until then, it’s one step at a time. The first step for HP is open materials, which may be refreshing for materials manufacturers. Next, it’s possible that HP’s own chemical agents for use in the MJF process will be accessible to manufacturers. In the future, if the pendulum swings that way, a number of large businesses could move toward an open-source model.

Those attending AMUG in Chicago will have an opportunity to learn more at the event. For those who won’t make it, visit HP and SIGMADESIGN online.  

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